That Pakistan is too important a state to be allowed to fail is long acknowledged. For the US, its strategic location and being the locus of ‘terror’ lend it significance. For China, it is useful for tying down India. For India, a nuclear-armed Pakistan would likely prove a greater headache were it to go under. For Pakistanis themselves, Talibanization would be most unwelcome. Not that Pakistan is about to tip over, but well-wishers prefer it draw back from the brink. The prescriptions extant are, however, wanting in strategic sense.

The Americans prefer Pakistan take on the extremists head on. They want their bases south of the Durand line wrapped up. They are prepared to assist the regime all the way in this. Indians want Pakistan to ‘roll back’ the infrastructure of terror directed against India. A Pakistan that is not a terror sanctuary is a desirable end state. The point is how to get there.

The US, no stranger to the use of force, would not mind this being done militarily and through some tough policing. India would likewise not be averse to seeing Pakistan in the trouble that would surely ensue. It can be argued that the high profile terror attacks that have shown the Army to be less than all powerful lately are the work of the better lot of terrorists. With their numbers dwindling with each such attack, they would be less credible. The state will prevail once it resolves to do so. Society wishing to see the back of terror would be supportive. Therefore all it takes is a decision and resolution.

However, the idea of Pakistan taking on the terrorists in its midst misses the fact that they are considerably strong. The terrorism Pakistan has been subjected to over the past four years clearly indicates that the opposition is fairly well armed, determined, battle hardened, ruthless and will prove a formidable foe. In contrast, the state and society are divided and consequently possibly not as resilient. The military leadership, which alone can take the decision, is well aware of the imbalance in relative strengths. This makes it stay its hand.

The military leadership has over the years been unwilling to undertake the task. The inference most drew from this was that the military intends to use terrorists as ‘strategic assets’ later in Afghanistan and in Kashmir. Therefore it is preserving them.  While this may indeed be the case, the position advanced here is that they are more keenly aware that rolling back the terrorists militarily is possibly impossible. It would endanger the state, create civil war conditions in society, and would likely break the institutional cohesion of the Army. The latter would compound the former problems.

The scenario the Army possibly fears is quite likely. It is not inaccurate to suggest that the better lot of terrorists are being used in the strategic attacks currently. However, were the Army to ‘go after’ the terrorists both in their mountain fastness in remote areas and elsewhere in the country, it would lead to a surge in their ranks. The Algerian case of the early nineties is instructive in this regard. Over one hundred thousand Algerians died, and the emergency has only been lifted after the onset of the Arab spring. Since Pakistan’s population is about four times the size of Algeria, the blood bath would be about as much higher. There is no guarantee the good guys would triumph. The feared outcome of loose nukes would draw closer.

Avoiding this outcome is best. Even if this logic does not drive the Army and it has more nefarious ideas propelling its inaction, it is all for the good. Nevertheless, it remains as to be answered as to what then needs doing.

The long term solution to Pakistan’s problems has been around longer than the short term military solution has. Pakistan should reform itself, beginning with land reforms. It needs to invest in education and employment generation. If this entails opening up to the South Asian economy, then so be it. Reordered civil-military relations and a military budget revised downwards will help. Since this implies reining in the military, it is somewhat wishful. Besides, these reforms amount to the traditional elite committing hara-kiri, an equally unlikely proposition. The idea requires civilian political agents with moral authority, intellectual capability and political will. This has historically been in short supply in Pakistan.

Given that both the short term and long term suggestions of well-wishers are less than viable, what is the alternative? The first principle must be to do no further harm. Pakistan is overstretched as it is. Secondly, the alternative must reckon with what is available in terms of human material, political conditions and social forces. Thirdly, demands must not only be on Pakistan, but must be made of those imposing on its stability even as they desire it remain stable.

It needs recognizing that terror has a context. It has not emerged out of a vacuum. A war has been waging in the vicinity of Pakistan for over thirty years. Others have profited from this war strategically over various times, as indeed has Pakistan. It is time for peace for the Afghan people. All sides in this are unanimous on this score, since all claim to be friends of Afghan people. A closure would require strengthening the reconciliation process underway.

This means that the US must join Karzai at the other side of the table. With Osama bin Laden eliminated and Mullah Omar reportedly done away with, there is little reason for the ISAF to stick around militarily. That US financing of reconstruction and peace-building would be essential, it does not require an operationally involved military presence.

With this one initiative, it can be surmised that the terrorist backlash in Pakistan will wither over time. It needs mention that the terror attacks are messages from extremists to caution Pakistan against going down the military route at the behest of its friends. Once the war draws towards a negotiated end, there would be little rationale for terrorism. This does not mean that terrorists will go away. They can be made to vanish with the long term solution being unfolded alongside. The ability, policy space and attention span to get ahead with these initiatives will only increase with the internal tensions subsiding.

Such actions over the long term alone can detoxify Pakistan. Suggestions however well-meaning for a military denouement require revising accordingly.